TIME North Korea

No One Has Seen North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Three Weeks

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the Supreme People's Assembly in Pyongyang
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the Supreme People's Assembly in Pyongyang, in this still image taken from video released by Kyodo on April 9, 2014 Kyodo/Reuters

Kim Jong Un's absence from an important parliamentary meeting fuels speculation about health problems

What has happened to Kim Jong Un?

That’s the question everyone seems to be asking, amid all kinds of rumors following the North Korean dictator’s uncharacteristic three-week absence from the public eye. Kim was last seen alongside his wife Ri Sol Ju at a concert in Pyongyang on Sept. 3, and several news outlets are speculating that the 31-year-old may be ill.

The rumors intensified on Thursday with the North Korean leader’s absence from an important parliament meeting. Reuters reported that state-television broadcast images of his empty chair at the Supreme People’s Assembly, the country’s highest sovereign body, the first such powwow he has missed since coming to power three years ago.

The Wall Street Journal speculated on Friday that Kim might be suffering from gout, a disease caused primarily by an excessive intake of meat, sugar and alcohol. A South Korean official told the Journal that gout runs in the tyrannical clan, starting with Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994 at age 82. Kim also suffers from obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, he added.

Such rumors have been fueled by reports that North Korean television showed the country’s Supreme Leader walking with a pronounced limp back in July.

Another theory about his condition, according to Agence France-Presse, is that he picked up an injury while providing “guidance” to North Korean athletes competing in the Asian Games, currently in progress at Incheon, South Korea.

TIME North Korea

An American Held in North Korea Begins Six Years of Hard Labor

U.S. citizen Matthew Todd Miller sits in a witness box during his trial at the North Korean Supreme Court
U.S. citizen Matthew Miller during his trial at the North Korean Supreme Court in Pyongyang in this undated photo released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on Sept. 14, 2014 KCNA/Reuters

Matthew Miller was jailed for committing acts "hostile" to the Pyongyang regime

An American man has begun a six-year sentence of hard labor in North Korea, CNN reports.

Matthew Miller, of Bakersfield, Calif., was arrested in North Korea in April and convicted earlier this month of committing acts “hostile” to the regime.

A shaven-headed Miller has been assigned the prisoner number 107, but CNN says there are no details of where in North Korea he will serve his sentence, or the nature of the labor he will be required to perform.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency claimed that the 25-year-old tore up his tourist visa upon arrival in Pyongyang as part of a ploy to be sent to prison so that he could report on human-rights violations there. It accused him of wanting to become a “second Snowden through intentional hooliganism.”

Washington, which has no diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, has unsuccessfully sought a meeting with North Korean officials to arrange the release of three Americans held in the state, including Miller.

[CNN]

TIME South Korea

A U.S. Citizen Who Tried to Swim Into North Korea Has Been Arrested

He reportedly wanted to "meet with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un"

South Korean soldiers have arrested a U.S. citizen attempting to swim across the Han River into North Korea.

A Defense Ministry spokesperson told Agence France-Presse the man, in his 30s, was detained Tuesday night and handed over to the relevant authorities.

“I was trying to go to North Korea in order to meet with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un,” the American told investigators, according to an unnamed government source cited by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

Crossing the heavily militarized border between the two countries, which are officially still at war, is tremendously dangerous. In September, South Korean troops shot dead a compatriot trying to swim to the North. In 1996, a naked and apparently drunk American crossed a river into North Korea from neighboring China on a dare. He was detained for three months on espionage charges before then New Mexico Congressman Bill Richardson secured his release during a visit to Pyongyang.

Three U.S. citizens — Kenneth Bae, Matthew Miller and Jeffrey Fowle — are currently in North Korean detention. Miller was sentenced to six years’ hard labor on Sunday for “hostile” acts against the regime after allegedly tearing up his tourist visa at immigration in May.

TIME could not immediately reach the U.S. embassy in Seoul for comment.

[AFP]

TIME North Korea

U.S. Man in North Korea Given 6 Years of Hard Labor

Miller was charged under Article 64 of the North Korean criminal code, which is for espionage and can carry a sentence of five to 10 years

(PYONGYANG, North Korea) — North Korea’s Supreme Court on Sunday sentenced a 24-year-old American man to six years of hard labor for entering the country illegally to commit espionage.

At a trial that lasted about 90 minutes, the court said Matthew Miller, of Bakersfield, California, tore up his tourist visa at Pyongyang’s airport upon arrival on April 10 and admitted to having the “wild ambition” of experiencing prison life so that he could secretly investigate North Korea’s human rights situation.

Miller, who looked thin and pale at the trial and was dressed completely in black, is one of three Americans now being held in North Korea.

Showing no emotion throughout the proceedings, Miller waived the right to a lawyer and was handcuffed before being led from the courtroom after his sentencing. The court, comprising a chief judge flanked by two “people’s assessors,” ruled it would not hear any appeals to its decision.

Earlier, it had been believed that Miller had sought asylum when he entered North Korea. During the trial, however, the prosecution argued that was a ruse and that Miller also falsely claimed to have secret information about the U.S. military in South Korea on his iPad and iPod.

Miller was charged under Article 64 of the North Korean criminal code, which is for espionage and can carry a sentence of five to 10 years, though harsher punishments can be given for more serious cases.

The Associated Press was allowed to attend the trial.

A trial is expected soon for one of the other Americans being held, Jeffrey Fowle, who entered the North as a tourist but was arrested in May for leaving a Bible at a sailor’s club in the city of Chongjin. The third American, Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, is serving out a 15-year sentence for alleged “hostile acts.”

All three have appealed to the U.S. government to send a senior statesman to Pyongyang to intervene on their behalf.

During a brief interview with The Associated Press in Pyongyang last week, Miller said he had written a letter to President Barack Obama but had not received a reply.

Fowle, a 56-year-old equipment operator for the city of Moraine, Ohio, said his wife, a hairstylist from Russia, made a written appeal on his behalf to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He said the Russian government responded that it was watching the situation.

The U.S. has repeatedly offered to send its envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, to Pyongyang to seek the freedom of the detainees, but without success.

Former President Bill Clinton came in 2009 to free a couple of jailed journalists. Jimmy Carter made the trip in 2010 to secure the release of Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for illegally crossing into the country to do missionary work.

In 2011, the State Department’s envoy for North Korean human rights managed to successfully intervene in the case of Korean-American businessman Eddie Yong Su Jun.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea and strongly warns American citizens against traveling to the country.

Uri Tours, a New Jersey-based travel agency specializing in North Korea tourism that handled the arrangements for Miller, said in an email Sunday that it was working to have Miller returned to his parents in the United States.

“Although we ask a series of tailored questions on our application form designed to get to know a traveler and his/her interests, it’s not always possible for us to foresee how a tourist may behave during a DPRK tour,” the travel agency said in a statement on Friday, referring to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “Unfortunately, there was nothing specific in Mr. Miller’s tour application that would have helped us anticipate this unfortunate outcome.”

The agency said that as a result of the incident, it now routinely requests a secondary contact and reserves the right to contact those references to confirm facts about a potential tourist. It has also added advice warning tourists not to rip up any officially issued documents and “to refrain from any type of proselytizing.”

TIME North Korea

American Detained in North Korea Going on Trial This Week

Matthew Todd Miller
In this Aug. 1, 2014 file image taken from video, U.S. citizen Matthew Todd Miller, of Bakersfield, Calif., speaks at an undisclosed location in North Korea. AP

Matthew Miller will go to trial on Sept. 14

An American recently detained in North Korea is set to go to trial this week, according to Reuters citing North Korean state news agency KCNA.

Matthew Miller, 26, will go to trial on Sept. 14. Miller, originally from Bakersfield, Calif., was arrested in April for allegedly destroying his visa when he arrived in North Korea.

Miller is one of three Americans being held in the country. Jeffrey Fowle was arrested this spring for leaving a Bible in a club after entering the country in late April. Kenneth Bae has reportedly been detained since 2012 for what Pyongyang says was a plot to overthrow the state.

The Americans have called for the U.S. to intervene and secure their release, speaking out in rare interviews with CNN and the Associated Press. In an recent interview with CNN, Miller said “my situation is very urgent, that very soon I am going to trial, and I would directly be sent to prison.”

[Reuters]

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TIME viral

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Takes Place in North Korea

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge North Korea Pras Michel
Two-time Grammy award winning rapper and a founding member of the Fugees, Pras Michel, gets doused by his friends for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Wong Maye-E—Associated Press

Almost no one in North Korea—where the average person can't access Internet—knows what it is

Internet access in North Korea may be limited to “super-elites,” but that hasn’t stopped the viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge from penetrating the Hermit Kingdom.

Two-time Grammy-winning rapper Pras Michel completed the challenge along Pyongyang’s Taedong River last week, while many North Koreans, unaware of the challenge, looked on with confusion, surprise and laughter, according to the Associated Press. Michel, a founding member of the hip-hop group Fugees, said he passed on the challenge to four people, including former Fugees bandmate Lauryn Hill and Prince Harry.

Michel, who was in Pyongyang to watch a pro wrestling exhibition, said he’d decided that completing the challenge in North Korea would put a unique spin on his take.

“I thought I’d put a little twist to it,” he told AP. “When we go to places, my crew, we stick out. You can tell instantly these guys aren’t from this neck of the woods. But the people have been good to us.”

Donations from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge topped $100 million last week.

TIME North Korea

Americans Detained in North Korea Call for U.S. Help

Kenneth Bae, Jeffrey Fowle and Mathew Miller call for a U.S. representative to come to North Korea to make a direct appeal

(PYONGYANG, North Korea) — North Korea gave foreign media access on Monday to three detained Americans who said they have been able to contact their families and — watched by officials as they spoke — called for Washington to send a high-ranking representative to negotiate for their freedom.

Jeffrey Fowle and Mathew Miller said they expect to face trial within a month. But they said they do not know what punishment they could face or what the specific charges against them are. Kenneth Bae, who already is serving a 15-year term, said his health has deteriorated at the labor camp where he works eight hours a day.

The three were allowed to speak briefly with The Associated Press at a meeting center in Pyongyang. North Korean officials were present during the interviews, conducted separately and in different rooms, but did not censor the questions that were asked. The three said they did not know they were going to be interviewed until immediately beforehand.

All said they believe the only solution to their situation is for a U.S. representative to come to North Korea to make a direct appeal.

That has often been North Korea’s bargaining chip in the past, when senior statesmen including former President Bill Clinton made trips to Pyongyang to secure the release of detainees.

North Korea says Fowle and Miller committed hostile acts which violated their status as tourists. It has announced that authorities are preparing for the trial, but has not announced the date.

Fowle arrived in North Korea on April 29. He is suspected of leaving a Bible in a nightclub in the northern port city of Chongjin. Christian proselytizing is considered a crime in North Korea. Fowle, 56, lives in Miamisburg, Ohio, where he works in a city streets department. He has a wife and three children aged 9, 10, and 12.

“Within a month I could be sharing a jail cell with Ken Bae,” he said, adding that he hasn’t spoken with his family for three weeks. “I’m desperate to get back to them.”

North Korea says Miller, 24, entered the country on April 10 with a tourist visa, but tore it up at the airport and shouted that he wanted to seek asylum. Miller refused to comment on whether he was seeking asylum.

Bae, a 46-year-old Korean-American missionary, has been held since November 2012. He was moved from a work camp to a hospital because of failing health and weight loss but last month was sent back to the work camp outside of Pyongyang, where he said he does farm-related labor. He said he has lost 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms) and has severe back pain, along with a sleep disorder. His family has said his health problems include diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain.

“The only hope that I have is to have someone from the U.S. come,” he said. “But so far, the latest I’ve heard is that there has been no response yet. So I believe that officials here are waiting for that.”

Bae said he did not realize before the trial that he was violating North Korean law, but refused to go into details.

He said the lead up to his trial lasted about four months, but the trial itself only took about an hour. He said he elected not to have a defense attorney because “at that point there was no sense of me to get a lawyer because the only chance I had was to ask for mercy.”

“It was very quick,” he said.

The U.S. has repeatedly offered to send its envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, to Pyongyang to seek a pardon for Bae and other U.S. detainees, but without success. Washington has no diplomatic ties with North Korea and no embassy in Pyongyang. Instead, the Swedish Embassy takes responsibility for U.S. consular affairs.

Fowle and Miller said they have met with the Swedish ambassador and have been allowed to make phone calls to their relatives.

Though a small number of U.S. citizens visit North Korea each year as tourists, the State Department strongly advises against it. After Miller’s detention, Washington updated its travel warning to note that over the past 18 months, “North Korea detained several U.S. citizens who were part of organized tours.”

North Korea has been strongly pushing tourism lately in an effort to bring in foreign cash. But despite its efforts it remains highly sensitive to any actions it considers political and is particularly wary of anything it deems to be Christian proselytizing.

In March, North Korea deported an Australian missionary detained for spreading Christianity after he apologized and requested forgiveness.

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TIME movies

Sony Will Amend Seth Rogen’s The Interview After North Korean Threats

Little Kim doesn't see the funny side

Executives at Japanese-owned Sony Pictures appear to have yielded in the face of increasing anger from North Korea over an upcoming comedy flick, The Interview, writes the Hollywood Reporter.

The movie stars Seth Rogen and James Franco, and much to Pyongyang’s dismay its plot follows two American broadcast journalists who are recruited as CIA agents and ordered to assassinate the communist state’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un after they score an interview with him.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the studio plans to digitally alter thousands of buttons worn by extras so that they no longer depict the actual buttons worn by the North Korean military to honor Kim Jong Un and his father Kim Jong Il. Sony is also considering cutting a scene where Kim Jong Un’s face is “melted off graphically in slow motion.”

In June, North Korean authorities labeled the film a “wanton act of terror” and threatened a “merciless” retaliation against the U.S. if the movie was released. The Interview was originally set to hit the big screen in October; however, because of the controversy, its release date has been knocked back to December.

[THR]

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